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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

The Self Psychology of Developmental Needs

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

Adults often come to my therapy office because they perceive something to be "wrong" with their "self". They "feel things too much", they feel "out of control" in their emotions, they believe that they are "not good enough" or that there is "something broken" with them. They often experience a deep anxiety that at their core, who they are--their body, their mind, their soul--is at risk of falling apart. Or they might experience a profound sadness and rage, believing that "who they are" has already fallen apart--or maybe even never came together.

This post takes a Self Psychology perspective, and focuses on human emotional needs--what they are, what happens when we don't get them met, how to meet them in adulthood, and what recovery looks like.

We all have emotional needs from the time we are born through adulthood. When our needs are met, we feel a strong sense of self--we're comfortable with our feelings, we're confident and we feel a sense of connection with others. But if our needs weren't met--it's not too late!

Developmental Needs

Every human being is born into the world with needs. Alot of them. We need air to breathe, nutrients to grow, water for hydration, sleep to organize our learning experiences, consolidate memory and restore our brain and body, shelter to keep us safe. In order to survive and thrive in our society, we need education so that we can participate in society and learn skills to help us navigate through our worlds.

Perhaps most importantly, we need relationships from which to grow--physically, cognitively and emotionally. We need to be protected from harm by the people who are caring for us. We also need to have the freedom and encouragement to explore the ourselves and the world around us.

There are three other critical emotional needs that we all have:

Mirroring: When we are babies, we need someone to "mirror" our emotional experience. When babies cry, they need someone to make a sad face, and use a somewhat sad voice "Oh, I know, you're hungry...[tone of voice and face changes] but it's okay, you're gonna have some milk, and then you'll feel all better". When parents are able to correctly mirror their child's feelings, children learn "this is what I'm feeling, and I'm okay feeling it". Mirroring also refers to "a loving gaze" or "a gleam in the eye", sending kids the message that they are loved. When children are mirrored in this way, they feel secure in their self worth and ability to be loved.

Idealizing: Children need to be able to idealize their parents. They need to know that their parents are strong enough, smart enough and capable enough to handle them--even and especially at their hardest moments. When parents can be an anchor, their kids feel safe with themselves and others. When this need is met, children grow up to be adults with a sense of secure self esteem and self worth.

Twinship: Kids need to feel "like" someone else. "My parents are these great people and I'm like them". (Of course, kids won't actually say this. In fact, they'll probably say otherwise. But they do need to feel it. And not all the time, in every moment. But over the course of their lives, they need to believe it). When this need is met, we feel a sense of "shared humanity"--"I am like others".

When Our Emotional Needs Are Not Met

There are many reasons why these emotional needs may not be met. When parents struggle with their own emotional well-being, when they struggle with anxiety, depression, grief, anger--sometimes they are unable to "mirror" what the child is feeling because their own feelings are so strong. When children aren't able to idealize their parents, either because of family conflict, separations, or when a child doesn't have positive experiences with their parent, they may grow up with an insecure sense of worthiness or confidence. Maybe a child grows up feeling "too different" from their parents, for whatever reason, the child may grow up to feel different and alone. In short, when our emotional needs aren't met as children, we can struggle with our relationship with ourselves through adulthood.

The Good News: It's Not Too Late!

Even if your emotional needs weren't met as a child, it's never too late. And it's not only parents that can meet them. We can get those needs met from teachers, mentors, friends, family of choice, anyone who is genuinely available to us and the development of our best self.

Of course, therapy is a great place to get those needs met, because that's just what your therapist is there for. To really see you--even your most difficult thoughts and feelings, to sit with it all, and to accept and care for all parts of you. To be strong enough to remain balanced even through the stormiest of times. And to be able to relate to you in a genuine, meaningful way. This is what therapy is all about!

And when you are able to get these core emotional needs met, you will find that all the things that felt "wrong" about your "self"--and the related anxiety, sadness and rage, will start to dissipate. That is what healing looks like.

Call Creating Space Counseling and Wellness today for a free 15 minute phone consultation to see if I might be a good match for you. 856-281-1664


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